Making Learning Whole through PBL

Deep learning must be “whole” – and project-based learning is a great way to make it so!

Whole learning is about many things but the most important of these is exposing students to genuine learning experiences. Sometimes this is messy and sometimes the learning isn’t exactly what the teacher intended, but students OWN what they learn in this way. This idea is very eloquently presented in David N. Perkins” book, “Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education.” This is a great read and I highly recommend it!

Briefly, Perkins’ 7 principles are:

  1. Play the whole game (don’t dumb it down for the kids – expose them to authentic challenges and let them wrestle with them)
  2. Make the game worth playing (engagement)
  3. Work on the hard parts (pick out the challenging content and help students master it)
  4. Play out of town (connections to other content areas, transfer)
  5. Uncover the hidden game (thinking like an expert in the topic)
  6. Learn from the team…and the other teams (collaboration)
  7. Learn the game of learning (metacognition)

Authentic experiences are a core part of each project. This includes activities that teach students to think and perform as experts in a given area. One way of doing this is to introduce students to experts in fields related to our projects.

Our previous 9th grade project (which integrated biology, English and history) was a mock court case about the issue of salmon and dams. During this project, we took students to a local dam, gave them an opportunity to gather water quality data, and brought in an attorney with expertise in tribal treaty rights to speak with the students. They then engaged in a simulated trial in front of a jury of seniors. The students were phenomenal and their deep learning was clearly evident!

Our 9th grade students are currently engaging in a project about biodiversity and the impact of humans on our environment. To culminate this project, the students will write a book answering our driving question, “Why should we care about our environment?” This book will contain creative, persuasive and scientific writings about our local ecosystem, the shrub steppe. It will also include original art and photography from the students. In order to get them thinking as scientific experts in this project, we began by taking them on a field trip to a local land conservancy where several experts hosted stations. Now, I am taking my students out into a nearby pasture to have them gather biodiversity data. Our next step is for them to design a field study to answer a question they have about the shrub steppe ecosystem. Reports from these field studies will be featured in our book.

These are just a couple of examples of how we are striving to make our projects “whole games” for our students!

What we’re learning about Project Based Learning

This past year has been serious action research for our 9th grade team at WSHS. We’ve been working on Project Based Learning type models in our classes for years. It was only about this time last year, though, when we really hit on a vision of a model that could really take us to the next level. Based on the model of High Tech High, among others, we set out to create our curriculum integrating biology, English and history.

It has not been easy; don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise! It has been extremely rewarding, though.

Right now, I really feel like we are beginning to hit our stride with this Project Based Learning model.

One core concept that we’ve learned is that an engaging project must incorporate at least 1 (preferably 2) of the following 3 criteria:

  1. a significant and relevant (to students) problem for students to investigate and create a solution for;
  2. a clear role for students to play in a situation or simulation that causes them to think like an expert;
  3. significant student choice about how to attack a project

To keep student motivation high and “keep the pressure on” (in a good way), a strong project must culminate with a product that is presented to an audience. Preferably this audience would be one that has a reason to care about the results of the project. This part is difficult but we have found that students are much more motivated for an audience than for a grade!

Finally, for true project success, the students must be crafting high quality work that they are proud of. They need lots of opportunities along the way for feedback (self, peer, teacher) and revision.

What are your thoughts?

Have you tinkered with project based learning?

What makes for a great project?

PBL Challenge – Balancing content vs. project

balance rock

One thing we’re really wrestling with in PAWS (Power Academics at White Swan – our integration of biology, English and social studies) right now is the balance of content and project.

We have a tendency to want to deliver content to our students to prepare them to do a quality project. This has resulted in a model where we mostly control the activities and direction of the classroom for a few weeks at the beginning of a project. Then students are basically given 2 or 3 weeks to put what they’ve learned into a project.

That has paradoxically caused some projects to have too little content integrated into them.

So we are pushing toward a more recursive model:

  • Hook the students into the project with engaging activities, field work, video, provocative text, data, images, etc.
  • Give them the big picture of where we’re going with the project and ask them to “attempt” the project (by answering the driving question, having a discussion, drafting relevant writing, a simulation, etc.)
  • Allow some time for inquiry and research
  • Deliver chunks of content and necessary skills along the way where they make sense and where the students have a “need to know” (via labs, texts, lessons, discussions, etc.)
  • Ask students to revise their work to integrate the new learning
  • Give more time for research
  • Repeat

Here is the model based around our current project, which is a mock trial project about the issue of salmon populations on the Columbia River and the role of dams in the issue. The driving question for this project is “What would happen if all dams were removed from the Columbia River and its tributaries?”

  • We hooked the kids with data about salmon populations, images and video, followed by a visit to a local dam and a wildlife refuge near a local stream
  • We introduced them to the real legal issue that has inspired this project
  • Students chose roles in the case (attorney, expert witness, media)
  • We’ve had guest speakers – an attorney that works with tribal hunting and fishing rights and a member of the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (we’re working on getting a speaker from the Bonneville Power Administration)
  • Each student is generating an authentic piece of writing within their role (case arguments & discovery for attorneys, expert witness reports, news articles)
  • We have delivered targeted texts and lessons about the issue. For example, I did an interactive presentation about the role of salmon in the river ecosystem.
  • Students have generated 3 progressive drafts of their RAFTS and had peer revision workshops and teacher feedback
  • They are preparing in earnest for a mock trial on 4/26 by doing depositions, preparing witnesses, conducting interviews, making exhibits for evidence, etc.

This project has nearly all students highly engaged. When we have delivered bits of content, they are genuinely interested in learning it because they clearly see the connection to the issue and the court case. They are doing high quality writing and deep research.

This circular model of project –> inquiry –> content –> skills –> project seems to be working.

So far, this has been a very successful project and I expect the mock trial to be outstanding!

Project FAIL: Genetics of Race

So, being the high minded individuals that we are, my co-conspirators in 9th grade project based learning at WSHS decided to attack racism. Hit it head on. Just tear that sucker down!

Of course, we’re just 3 white dudes working on an Indian Reservation with a student population that is 60% American Indian and 30% Latino. Maybe that was our first mistake, I don’t know.

Actually, the meat of the project went pretty darn well. Kids enjoyed the learning, were engaged and handled a prickly issue with class and grace.

In Biology, my piece of the puzzle was to teach them genetics and some evolutionary biology to help them understand what race is (and isn’t), where we think it comes from, and how genetically similar we humans really are.

In World History, the students learned about Hitler, Nazis, WWII and the Holocaust.

In English, they read Maus and wrote various essays about it.

Our common project pieces were meant to be a Public Service Address campaign including an announcement (to be read over the school’s intercom), a poster (to be displayed on campus) and a video (to be shown to fellow students).

Here is where the problems really begin.


We had students call my Google Voice number to record their announcements. These were mostly not very good. They were unfocused and -frankly – just plain boring. Somehow, they mostly managed to have both too much and too little information.

The posters turned out okay, although they took way to long to do. For the amount of time we put into them, they were underwhelming at best. Kids made these in PowerPoint and then we printed them with our school’s large format printer (these are awesome, by the way!).

The real debacle, though, was the videos. These were filmed with Flip Cameras (RIP, Flip!) purchased through We thought we had very clear expectations for the videos. The kids went through a process of brainstorming –> storyboarding –> drafting scripts –> filming. All should have been well. They were engaged. They were excited.

Videos were filmed and then the problems began.

We used JayCut for editing. The site is really slick but uploading video to it took hours. We had some editing glitches (mostly just learning the program) but some groups lost whole videos and had to re-upload (hours wasted). Then we found out that finished videos could not be easily shared on our network (internet filter strikes again!).

The project dragged on. And on. And on. A tight 5 week project became a bloated 8 week nightmare.

That wasn’t even the worst of it.

My aforementioned colleagues and I assembled one day after school to view and assess the videos. 13 of our 15 student groups had submitted video.

They were awful. < Cue trombone playing wah – wahhh>

At least 3 groups dedicated large chunks of their videos to fight scenes.

One or two groups actually seemed to be promoting (or at least making light of) racism.

The only group that kicked out a strong product totally cancelled that out by tacking on a 5 minute rap song at the end full of F-bombs (and not relevant to the project) and accompanying images making light of the holocaust and black stereotypes.

Finally, with the exception of maybe 5 groups, there was little relevant science actually integrated into their product. Most of the rest just threw in the psuedo-fact that “genetically, we are all 99.9% the same.”

Part of this is due to the epic disaster that was our attempt at a drosophila genetics lab. We lost several populations of drosophila to rotting media. This was ironic because the media was not supposed to rot. Well it did. It rotted HARD. One student described the smell in the room as a combination of vomit, urine and sharpie pen ink. He nailed it – that was EXACTLY WHAT IT SMELLED LIKE!

All that being said, I know the kids did learn a significant amount about genetics based on my other assessments. It was just REALLY frustrating to see a project that took so much hard work (on our part and theirs) turn in to a steaming heap. In a lot of ways, this project was a great example of an assessment FOR learning but not an assessment OF learning.

And, yes, in the end, all I really care about is their learning. Except I also really want them to do beautiful work. Work that they are proud of. Work that CLEARLY demonstrates their learning. This did not happen here.

So my questions to you, dear readers, are:

  • What did we do wrong?
  • What should we do differently next year?

The power of an audience


that's an audience!

My students have just completed a web-based “wiki” project using their blogs. They generated and researched a guiding question of their choice that related to the overall project driving question, “How do we reconcile science and personal beliefs?

Students in my class are not motivated by grades. I do not grade them; they grade themselves. Yet, they have worked very hard on each of our major projects this year.

Why? There are several reasons: choice, inquiry, engaging content, etc. All are important. When you are working on a project, deadlines are a big concern. When you are not grading your students, you can’t use the threat of lowered grades for late work.  People ask me all the time, “how do you get kids to complete work by deadlines?” I have one answer:

An audience.

In the first 9th grade project of the year (integrated between biology, English and World History), the students  presented a poster to friends and family. The driving question was, “what determines who I become?” We had an unprecedented completion rate of virtually 100%. Historically, at our school, I have seen completion rates more in the neighborhood of two thirds; never 100%. Not on any major assignment or project.

Why are students so motivated to complete their project on time and with quality?

Because of the audience!

Our current 9th grade project (again, integrated between biology, English and World History) has been published to a worldwide internet audience. Students have received comments from all over the U.S. and beyond (India!). They were excited and nervous for the day that we “went live” with the project. They were motivated to do their best work because of the audience.

No amount of pushing, wheedling, cajoling, or threatening could motivate students like an audience!

Photo used under creative commons license from the Flickr stream of EricMagnuson

It’s Showtime! – How do we reconcile science and personal beliefs?

My previous post introduced you to my students’ current web-based project.  In this project, they answered the driving question, “How do we reconcile science and personal beliefs?”

Each student has generated his or her own guiding question that falls under the overarching driving question.  They are using their blogs (each of my students has his/her own) to answer their questions in a wiki style format.

The students have been engaged in deep research for a few weeks now and have used their research to answer their own questions.  The opportunity for an international audience has certainly fueled their efforts.  Now I need help to follow through on that promise of an audience!

How you can help:

  • Please visit my students’ wiki to read and provide comments
  • If you have students with computer access, please consider asking them to read and provide comments
  • Please help spread the word to as many people as possible, via blogs, email, Twitter, word of mouth, etc.

Without further ado, here is the link to the home page for the project:


A call for an audience!

My students are currently working on a web-based project.  In this project, they are answering the driving question, “How do we reconcile science and personal beliefs?”

Each student has generated his or her own guiding question that falls under the overarching driving question.  They are using their blogs (each of my students has his/her own) to answer their questions in a wiki style format.

Some student questions:

  • How are humans affecting the evolution of fish?
  • If extinct animals were still alive, how would that have affected human evolution?
  • How are humans evolving today?
  • If humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?
  • How do different world religions feel about evolution?
  • How are modern humans and Neanderthals related?

The students have been engaged in deep research for a few weeks now and have begun drafting answers to their questions.  The opportunity for an international audience has certainly fueled their efforts.  Now I need help to follow through on that promise of an audience!

How you can help:

  • Please plan to visit my students’ wiki on 11/4 (or soon thereafter) to read and provide comments
  • If you have students with computer access, please consider asking them to read and provide comments
  • Please help spread the word to as many people as possible, via blogs, email, Twitter, word of mouth, etc.

Look for the link to the student wiki on 11/4 and thanks in advance for your help!